The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony known as a bar mitzvah is always challenging. It happens at the awkward age of the early teen years, and requires the child to chant, before family, friends and congregation, from the archaic Hebrew of the Torah.
For Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Israeli-born scion of an Eastern European rabbinical dynasty, it was even more difficult. The section he read, called Kedoshim, contained the biblical prohibition against sex between two men:
“A man who lies with a male as one would with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.”
It was a painful moment for Lau-Lavie, now 48, who had already realized he was gay.
Decades later, in part because traditional Judaism condemns homosexuality, Lau-Lavie left Orthodoxy to become a rabbi in the American Conservative movement of Judaism, which ordains LGBTQ rabbis and blesses same-sex marriages.
But now, more than a decade later, Lau-Lavie and other Conservative rabbis are pushing for more change. Their activism represents one instance of how queer leadership is pushing the movement to modify its approach on a range of issues, including the study of Torah, the place of intermarried families and how synagogues are run.
The problem is that even while Conservative life is inclusive of LGBTQ people, it still places limits on their most intimate lives. It instructs gay men to avoid anal sex precisely because of the verse Lau-Lavie chanted at his Bar Mitzvah, and urged bisexual people to pursue relationships with those of the opposite sex. It also cited heterosexuality as the ideal sexual orientation.
Lau-Lavie and other Conservative rabbis believe those rules should be abandoned. Forty-nine-year-old Rabbi Adina Lewittes, who identifies as a lesbian, is leading the charge.
She recognizes that queer people can be full participants in Jewish life, that they can marry and become rabbis. And few members of the movement are likely to know about these rules, much less follow them. But enshrining in Jewish law negative attitudes against homosexuality and bisexuality amounts to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that leaves some queer Jews feeling excluded, she argues.
“Spiritual and halachic acceptance isn’t something to snatch underhandedly,” Lewittes wrote in a Forward op-ed, using the Hebrew word for “Jewish law.” “It’s something to be articulated with clarity and pride.”